Barbara Sjoholm interviews Helene Uri

Languages, histories & parents:

Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Press
Helene Uri is a Norwegian novelist whose writing has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is a trained linguist and the author of 30 books, including Clearing Out.

Barbara Sjoholm
Port Townsend, Wash.

As the translator of Clearing Out, I’m delighted to introduce the Norwegian author Helene Uri and her marvelously written and moving novel to a North American audience. Clearing Out is a novel of losses (languages, histories, and parents) but also of discoveries and rediscoveries (heritage, memories, and love). In this interview, I’ve focused largely on the Sámi elements of Clearing Out. Yet the strength of the novel is that it succeeds on many levels, parallel and overlapping, in telling two stories, one autobiographical (Helene) and one fictional (Ellinor): two contemporary Norwegian women, both linguists, both dealing with the loss of an older parent.

Uri’s work spans many forms: literary fiction, young adult fiction, popular nonfiction about language, and academic work on linguistics. She has a doctorate in linguistics; she has appeared frequently on Norwegian television (including a stint as host of the travel-bicycling reality program Girls on Wheels); and she writes a regular column on language for Aftenposten. Her most recent book, Hvem sa hva? Kvinner, menn og språk (“Who Said What: Women, Men, and Language”), won the country’s prestigious Brage prize for nonfiction for its witty and intelligent take on the issue of gender in speech.

Language, including “language death,” which occurs when a language loses its last native speaker, plays a large role in Clearing Out. In Norwegian, the title Rydde ut means, in its most direct translation, “to clear out,” and can describe the efforts adult children make to deal with the accumulated possessions of their elderly parents, which sometimes spark questions and reveal secrets. But the term can also have more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.

Helene Uri

There are nine Sámi languages in Sáp­mi, which covers the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sámi language with the most speakers (estimated at around 20,000) is Northern Sámi. Over the past decades, numerous programs have been created to help save and promote several of the languages, with success. Yet other Sámi languages are edging closer to extinction. The character of Ellinor has much to say about dying and dead languages from around the world, but until she arrives for a research project in Finnmark and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sámi, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking it, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten, often suppressed knowledge of a family tree that includes Sámi ancestors who decided for various reasons to “pass.”

For millennia the indigenous Sámi people hunted and herded reindeer, fished, and built boats in northern Scandinavia. Often coexisting peacefully with settlers from the south, their existence became more precarious in the 17th century when missionaries and colonists dislodged them from their territories. Punitive laws followed, including sending children to boarding schools and forbidding the Sámi language. Many Sámi resisted and engaged politically; others intermarried or assimilated and hid their old identities. Some emigrated to North America and, in doing so, erased their Sámi backgrounds.

In North America, there’s a resurgence of interest in Sámi heritage. The Minnesota-Finnmark writer Ellen Marie Jensen, author of We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans, is part of a new wave of Sámi-American researchers and organizations, dedicated to delving into family connections and celebrating new forms of engagement. In Norway, the issue of Sámi identity and rights is complex and often painful. Along with cultivating pride and a renewed exploration of culture and language, the Sámi grapple with continued prejudice and the “shame” that Uri refers to below (as well as ongoing struggles against resource extraction by corporations that threaten their land and livelihoods). In 1997, King Harald V of Norway made a formal apology on behalf of the state to the Sámi parliament. Norway’s parliament recently instigated a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate and attempt to heal past injustices and abuses against the Sámi and Kven (ethnic Finns in Norway) population.

One of the things that sets Clearing Out apart from much of contemporary Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sámi history and characters as an integral part of the narrative. Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sámi culture. Anna was and is an activist, and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sámi background.

Beautifully constructed, Clearing Out is both a clearing out and a gathering together of old and new stories from Norway’s history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians (and readers of Norwegian fiction in translation) the far north is a strange country. In this novel, Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.

Barbara Sjoholm: Novels combining fiction and autobiography seem to be gaining currency in Norway and other countries. How does Clearing Out fit into this literary genre?

Helene Uri: I was surprised when I discovered I was unable to write about language death and the Sámi language without writing autobiographically. It took me a long time to realize I actually had to include myself, as myself! I’d never done that before. In my earlier novels, the “I” has always been someone else. Now there was a close, if not completely overlapping, relationship between the novel’s first-person narrator and the novel’s author. I didn’t want to write an autobiographical text, but it couldn’t have happened otherwise.

BS: There are relatively few novels in Norway that include Sámi characters such as Anna and Kåre, characters who defy certain stereotypes. What was in your mind as you created them?

HU: I suppose I thought of them as I always do when I create my literary characters: I want them to be alive and believable. People are people regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and age. A human being is first an individual, then a member of a group. But after having said that, it’s obvious that the certainty of your own background is one of several factors that shape you as a human being. And when a group of people has been oppressed, the certainty of belonging is something that characterizes the people of that group. And I wanted this certainty to be reflected in the characters.

BS: Ellinor Smidt, has a doctorate in linguistics, and so do you. You’ve also published a number of popular books about the Norwegian language. Can you say something about your choice to look at language through the prism of a character studying “endangered languages” in Norway? Was your intention in part to educate the general Norwegian reader?

HU: When I write nonfiction books on language, I want to inform, and yes, “educate,” my readers. When I write fiction, nothing could be further from my mind! I wanted to write about language death, because the theme has enormous narrative power. An image that popped into my head early on was this: A grandmother sits with her newborn grandchild on her lap. She bends over the child and sings a lullaby that her mother and grandmother sang to her, and she knows that the child she holds in her arms will never understand the words in the song.

But if my readers end up thinking about language death—that around 50 languages disappear every year—then that’s a good outcome as well.

BS: What has the reaction to the book been from the Sámi community(ies) in Norway?

HU: I’ve only heard positive things. I’m telling my story and others must tell theirs. In any case, many feel it’s a relief to read a narrative where the shame is lifted.

BS: The search for family histories is resonant in North America, where many immigrants shed their names, language, and ethnicities to fit in. A number of Sámi-Americans have had no idea they had Sámi ancestors. Do you think this phenomenon is more prevalent in Norway than many have thought?

HU: They say that if you have family from the north of Norway, then it’s likely that Sámi or Kven forefathers and foremothers will turn up. So, yes, this is common—and it’s also common that one does not know, because the shame of it has been covered up.

I recently visited a library in Nordland where they had blown up a huge photograph of two older people sitting on stone steps in front of a house. In itself, the photograph was beautiful, but the most interesting thing about the photo was what a later relative had done with it: He had scratched off the footwear of those depicted. Both of the elders were wearing komagers (traditional Sámi shoes), but where the komagers should have been, there were only lots of angry, white lines on the image.

BS: Have you continued to learn about your family since this novel was published?

HU: I’ve gotten to know several relatives—and I hope to continue to learn more about them. And about the family. And about the Sámi people. It will probably turn out that I have some relatives from that side of the family in the United States as well.

Barbara Sjoholm is a Norwegian and Danish translator and the author of many books, including The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Black Fox, a new biography of the Danish artist and ethnographer, Emilie Demant Hatt. She lives in Port Townsend, Wash.

This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.